Saturday, September 20, 2014

BOOK: Cristoforo Landino, "Poems"

Cristoforo Landino: Poems. Translated by Mary P. Chatfield. The I Tatti Renaissance Library, Vol. 35. Harvard University Press, 2008. 9780674031487. xxv + 398 pp.

This book contains various poets by Landino, a 15th-century humanist author and professor of literature at Florence. Much like the previous collections of poems that I've read in the I Tatti Renaissance Library series, the poems in this book were nice enough but nothing to write home about.

Many of the poems here, especially those written earlier in his career, are love poems. Like many such poets do, he picked a woman (named Xandra, which sounds pleasantly exotic but turns out to be just a nickname for Alexandra) that was either not interested in him or unavailable to him, so that he can safely spend his poems moaning and whining about her, and praising her from a safe distance. But although his poems abound with protestations of love, they never gave me as a reader the feeling of being passionate and excited. Maybe I'm just an insensitive clod, but still — what a world of difference there is between the poems in this book and e.g. those of Keats, whom I read a few months ago!

Perhaps this is partly due to the form of the poems. First of all, nearly all the poems in this book are written in elegiac metre, which strikes me as perhaps somewhat stolid for love poetry. But what is more, the translation doesn't employ any metre at all. I think I'm the sort of person who really needs the help of metre (and preferably rhyme) in order to enjoy a poem. Well, it could be worse — at least the translations in this book are in verse, unlike in some of the other ITRL volumes which translate verse into prose.

Like many other humanist works, his poems are full of allusions to names and events from classical mythology and history. Occasionally I had the impression that he was motivated less by his love for Xandra than by a kind of academic ambition, trying to maximize the number of classical allusions that he could stuff into a poem. I guess that for him and his contemporaries, such things were welcome ornaments in a poem, since they were so thoroughly familiar with classical mythology; but from my perspective, these things felt more like distractions.

Landino's other favorite subject, which predominates more and more in the later parts of his career, are eulogies, longish poems written to and/or about all sorts of notable people of his day. The list of people he praised in his poems reads like a who's who of renaissance Florence, and includes several authors whose work I've already read in the ITRL series. There are poems dedicated to Cosimo de' Medici, his son Piero, Bartolomeo Scala, Leon Battista Alberti, Carlo Aretino, Poggio Bracciolini; there are also several poems in praise of the city of Florence (2.23, 3.3).

The eulogy on the death of Carlo Aretino occasionally descends to probably unintended hilarity: “They say that even lions in the neighborhood groaned” when he died (book 3, poem 7, line 55; p. 179) :) I have a hard time believing that there were lions in renaissance Italy...

On pp. 277–303 he has several poems dedicated to Bernardo Bembo, a Venetian politician and diplomat who was the father of the better-known Pietro Bembo (see my recent posts about the latter's History of Venice). Landino mentions, and praises, the “platonic affair between the 42-year old Bembo and the sixteen-year old Ginevra de' Benci, both married” (from the translator's notes on p. 375). How times have changed — if such a thing happened today, Bembo would be pilloried as a dirty old creep, his reputation would be mercilessly shredded to bits by the social media within days and his career as a public figure would be utterly ruined.

From the translator's notes, on the rivalry for the appointment to professorship at Florence: “the many attacks on Marsuppini by his former rival, Francesco Filelfo, which included hiring an assassin to kill him” (p. 360). Talk about cut-throat competition :))

“The doctors recommend venereal pleasures as an antidote to plague, a common remedy of the time” (translator's note on p. 380). This sounds funny at first thought, but on second thought it's rather tragic, when you realize that some poor prostitute would end up risking to catch the plague from her infected customer.

Apart from the love poems and the eulogies, there are also a few miscellaneous other things: some epitaphs, which mostly didn't strike me as terribly touching; and a few jocular and bawdy poems, which mostly surprised me by the contrast they made in comparison to the relative chasteness of his love poetry. For example, there's a quatrain about a man “who died while having sex” (book 2, poem 22; “he laid down his life just as his penis spurted”, p. 119), and a poem in response to Tommaso Ceffi, another poet, who had insulted Landino's beloved Xandra: “beware hereafter, Ceffi,/ of saying things inappropriate about my lady-love./ Or I shall describe how your Xandra's cunt is withered” (p. 231).

One thing I liked about Landino's poetry is his modesty. He frequently points out that he considers himself a minor poet and will stick to what he is reasonably good at, i.e. short love poems, despite the admonitions of friends who tried to get him to tackle some weightier topic. (See e.g. 3.15.7–10 on p. 195 and 3.15.91–6 on p. 201.)

Another good thing is that most of the poems in this book are relatively short; mostly a few dozen lines long, only a few of them go up to 100–150 lines. This made it possible to read the book in small increments, so I could avoid getting bored. Thus in the end I can say that this book was a reasonably enjoyable read.

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